Gertrude Stein Strikes Again

It has been quite a few months for Gertrude Stein. Since Kathy Bates’ appearance as her in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Dalkey Archive Press has experienced record sales of Stein’s “The Making of Americans,” a 925-page behemoth. The Seeing Gertrude Stein Exhibit has been in San Francisco and Washington DC and on Feb. 28th The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde opens at the Met in NYC. Now Yale University Press has just released Ida: A Novel and Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition. The history of the latter is fascinating:

…scholars have discovered that Stein’s poem exists in several versions: a manuscript that Stein wrote and two typescripts that her partner Alice B. Toklas prepared. Toklas’s work on the second typescript changed the poem when, enraged upon detecting in it references to a former lover, she not only adjusted the typescript but insisted that Stein make revisions in the original manuscript.

Stein’s early relationship with May Bookstaver was never revealed to Toklas by Stein, but she did find out. The word “may” recurs often throughout the Stanzas as both a noun and verb. Toklas changed all that. From Stanza VI in Part One–the genesis of line 25:

All may be glory may be may be glory

All may can be glory can be can be glory

All can be glory can be can be glory

The book painstakingly details all the edits and there are many. This edition also includes incredible prefatory essays by Joan Retallack and Donald Sutherland–as well as John Ashbery’s 1956 review of the first Stanzas.

The poem as it now reads is at once stunning, difficult, and sonorous. An example from Part Two:

STANZA XIV

It is not only early that they make no mistake

A nightingale and a robin.

Or rather that which may which

May which he which they may choose which

They knew or not like that

They make this be once or not alike

Not by this time only when they like

To have been very much absorbed.

And so they find it so

And so they are

There

There which is not only here but there as well as there.

They like whatever I like.

Stein is both plangent and playful. She is looking back (it was written a year before The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) at her life and summoning words and phrasings that may be accidental but have a soundsphere that is stark: “may which” = “may witch”? The menacing “they” occurs all throughout the poem. The stanza above puts me in the mind of the moody, fussy relationships we try to make work–“They like whatever I like,” being the final cross through the heart.

These meditations are personal, yet universal. Now they can be enjoyed the way Stein wrote them.

5 thoughts on “Gertrude Stein Strikes Again

  1. Great, Greg — I’ll have to pick up the corrected edition of Stanzas. I’ve been using the version in the Library of America edition. The modernist long poems in the epic tradition tend to get all the attention–I’m happy to see more attention being paid to Stanzas. I like, in particular, Stein’s slightly different take on the relation between history and the long poem (in comparison to Pound): “There may be said to be all history in this.”

    And Stanza LXXXII is a great penultimate stanza, coming after pages and pages of permutational abstraction: “Thank you for hurrying through.”

    • It’s an amazing reading experience, and I mean that one is amazed at the spells she conjured through the words. Many stanzas I’ve read get at emotion circuitously? abstractly? – maybe in how the three travelers in Stalker are only 200 meters from the tip of the zone, yet it takes 90 minutes to get there. Guy Davenport said one should be issued a medal from the American Academy for reading it. Do you have your metal? But seriously, which modernist long poems do you mean? The Cantos and The Waste Land and the handful from Stevens, Paterson?

      • Yeah–definitely The Waste Land and the Cantos. Not so much the Stevens long poems–such as “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”–that seems more of a lyric sequence than a modernist epic. Also Hart Crane’s The Bridge–Olson, Zukofsky, Duncan…

  2. Penny Starr, the woman who got the National Portrait Gallery to censor part of its Hide/Seek show about “Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” also tried to get them to revoke the Stein show, though the museum didn’t give in this time:

    “Gertrude Stein, as our exhibition texts state, was one of America’s most widely known 20th century writers. She experimented radically with language and reached across the arts in a transatlantic community befriending young writers like Ernest Hemingway and artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The fact that Stein was a lesbian did not influence why this exhibition was selected.”

    • It’s a cruel world Joe. I hope she finds her better self.

      I hope the Stein exhibit will continue on. One of the most interesting parts was her with the GI’s after Europe was liberated. I know they were photo op’s but it’s also incredible.

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